Hotline mailbag: Kliavkoff’s challenge, Scott’s role, Pac-12 expansion options and delays, the BYU piece, the Deion Sanders era and more

The Hotline mailbag is published every Friday. Send questions to — and include ‘mailbag’ in the subject line — or hit me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline.

Please note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How much blame for the problems with the media rights negotiations would you give to USC and UCLA? To former commissioner Larry Scott? To current commissioner George Kliavkoff? To the university presidents? — @draywilson29

I’m hesitant to engage in the blame game, especially with a range of possible outcomes still in play. (The extended duration of the negotiations doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bad outcome, after all.)

But the question allows us to provide meaningful context to help fans understand the situation.

If we equate the media rights piece to a round of poker, there are two issues to address:

— The hand the Pac-12 was dealt.

— The process of playing the hand.

We don’t disagree with the notion that Kliavkoff was caught off guard by USC’s move to the Big Ten and could have been more aware of the potential for a departure.

However, I’m not sure the conference could have stopped the Trojans had it known in advance, and there comes a point in which you have to take a university president at his or her word. The nature of realignment self-selects for stealth and surprise.

Ultimately, responsibility for the Pac-12’s current hand falls on the university presidents who approved Scott’s media strategy — specifically, the Pac-12 Networks’ distribution model — and his management of the conference’s business and football operations.

Because of shortcomings with visibility and resources, the Pac-12’s football stage was forever shrinking and the Trojans, of course, view their football program as worthy of the biggest stage.

(That said, USC’s lackluster competitive success and comical administrative execution in the 2010s helped shrink the very Pac-12 stage the school eventually fled.)

So when the Big Ten made an offer — and let’s be clear: Fox pulled all the strings — the L.A. schools accepted and the Pac-12 was left with a limited hand at the poker table.

At that point, it became incumbent upon Kliavkoff and his media adviser, Doug Perlman, to negotiate the best possible deal with the cards at their disposal.

Central to that process is knowing your value on the market, not aiming too high, not taking too long and not risking buyer fatigue.

We believe the process should have been wrapped up soon after a final decision on UCLA from the UC Board of Regents, but the Hotline’s general view of the terrain hasn’t changed:

— Pac-12 survival, while not guaranteed, stands as the most likely outcome.

— Pac-12 media rights are worth approximately the same as Big 12 media rights.

— The Big Ten is not open for business.

— Expansion of the CFP makes sticking together the most desirable competitive outcome for the top remaining football schools (Washington, Oregon and Utah).

Now, it’s up to Kliavkoff and Perlman to cut an acceptable deal.

You’ve noted a few times that the Big 12 set the valuation floor by leaving money on the table and re-upping with their partners. But why couldn’t the Pac-12, during negotiations, underscore the obvious that the Big 12 went for stability over cash and did not get fair market value? — Doug Ware

The Pac-12 can apply that strategy, and probably has already. But ESPN, Fox, CBS and Amazon don’t have to buy in.

The analytics shared with the Hotline over the past seven months (TV audience, market size, social media followings, etc.) all suggest the Pac-12 is significantly closer to the Big 12 in overall valuation than the Big Ten, and the network negotiators are undoubtedly looking at the same, or similar, data sets.

As we have said since the outset of this saga, the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC are fraternal twins in the sports media space. The SEC and Big Ten are different species.

Looking at Brigham Young’s schedule in the Big 12, did the Pac-12 stumble by playing it safe with the alliance and missing out on a solid contender with a national following? — @StandardWeho

Yes and no.

The Pac-12 considered expansion last summer but decided none of the available schools made sense competitively, financially and institutionally.

Had the presidents decided to expand, Houston, not BYU, should have been the top target, in our opinion.

Next on our list would have been TCU.

With those schools now part of the restructured Big 12, the Pac-12’s top expansion target outside the Pacific Time Zone is SMU.

Are schools like Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona holding up expansion because they are afraid of getting farther down the pecking order when former Group of Five schools with better markets come in? — @LiveInHothAK

I don’t believe any of the schools are holding up expansion. The delay is entirely due to the slow pace of media rights negotiations.

Recall that in early December, Kliavkoff said he felt no “sense of urgency.” Now that UCLA’s fate has been resolved, we disagree with that notion. The conference needs to get a deal done as soon as possible.

The downside risks associated with waiting outweigh the upside rewards.

Could Pac-12 basketball be relegated exclusively to Amazon/ESPN+ in the next media cycle? If there is no media deal by Selection Sunday, is the conference done for? — @ryan_silva88

I don’t believe every men’s basketball game will be available exclusively on the streaming platforms. A package of matchups will find its way to cable and broadcast outlets.

But a good portion of the inventory probably will be streamed — that’s simply the reality, not only for the Pac-12 but the sport in general, in the second half of the decade.

And no, the conference certainly isn’t “done for” if there’s no deal by Selection Sunday (March 12). But the longer it drags on, the more vulnerable it becomes to unexpected events.

Would the presidents have agreed to open the media rights negotiations in July had they known it would go like this? — @draywilson29

On July 5, the Pac-12 Board of Directors (i.e., the presidents) authorized Kliavkoff to begin media rights negotiations.

At that time, the Pac-12 planned to take its media rights to the open market unless ESPN or Fox made a killer offer during the exclusive negotiating window.

The presidents didn’t authorize Kliavkoff to start negotiations because they thought a deal was imminent. Instead, we believe their motivation was to get a feel for the market — a rough valuation, in other words.

Since that point, two developments have served to further shape the landscape: The Big 12’s rapid move to renew its deal with ESPN and Fox, and the decision to expand the College Football Playoff starting in 2024, with automatic berths for the six highest-ranked conference champions.

In other words, yes: The presidents likely would have followed the same course.

What are the realistic options for expansion? Can we finally bring in Gonzaga? — @mickbricks

The realistic options for football-playing schools are San Diego State and SMU, with Gonzaga as the only non-football candidate.

Those are the clear leaders, in our opinion.

None of them would enter the Pac-12 with full revenue shares, but the annual distributions nonetheless would far exceed what they receive currently.

SDSU helps maintain a presence in Southern California; SMU creates a presence in Texas; and Gonzaga adds another major brand to the basketball lineup, replacing UCLA as a foil for Arizona.

I do not believe a firm decision on expansion has been made. To a large degree, it depends on the media rights negotiations.

But adding at least one member — without football divisions, you can have 11 teams — is more likely than standing on 10.

If you were San Diego State’s athletic director, would you want to go to the Pac-12 or the Big 12? — @jlahaye76

The Pac-12 is SDSU’s clear preference because of geographic proximity for travel and the academic fit.

SDSU’s administration specifically, and the California State University system generally, would love an association with Stanford and Cal.

The Aztecs aren’t likely to enter either conference with a full revenue share. They receive roughly $4 million annually from the Mountain West deal.

Whichever networks align with the Pac-12 aren’t going to assign a $30 million valuation (approximately) to SDSU just because the school changed leagues.

Washington and Oregon seem to be itching for a Big Ten invite. The Arizona schools are reportedly not happy and itching for the Big 12. Where are Utah and Colorado leaning? — @RickyTicky5309

I’m not sure “itching” is the proper term for any of the Pacific Northwest or Arizona schools.

But to your question: I’ve seen no indication that Colorado wants to return to the Big 12, and Utah’s lean was seemingly answered by athletic director Mark Harlan, who offered his view on Twitter two months ago:

“We are not leaving …”

Now that the Pac-12 is realistically guaranteed a spot in the expanded playoff, what can the conference do with scheduling that will increase our chances of getting two teams in? — @TerryTerry79

We plan to explore the scheduling piece in detail, but until the membership situation is resolved, it’s difficult to assess specific options: eight conference games or nine, divisions or no divisions, late-season cupcakes or grueling Novembers, etc.

Overall record is critical to the playoff calculation, which means non-conference schedules have a central role. And those are, of course, determined by the schools.

(In theory, the selection committee will reward teams with tough schedules, rather than punishing teams because of their loss total.)

Ultimately, success will be based on resources — those provided at the campus level and from the conference office — and on hiring decisions.

If you spend the money for an elite coach, good things often follow.

Would it not be the most Pac-12 thing of all time if UCLA and USC were to play for the 2023 conference championship? — Jon Joseph

Yes, it would be very Pac-12 for the defectors to play for the title in their final season, but the path to Las Vegas is narrow for the loser of their rivalry game.

The ideal scenario for the conference, of course, would be two teams not named USC and UCLA to play for the title.

The Trojans are well positioned, but I’m not sure the Bruins will enter the season as one of the top five teams. Washington, Oregon, Utah and Oregon State are stocked.

And until proven otherwise, UCLA does not possess either a championship-caliber defense or Caleb Williams.

Which do you think will happen first: Deion Sanders coaches the Buffaloes to a conference championship, or he leaves Colorado? — @VanRouge

The latter.

Sanders will make CU competitive immediately, but it’s difficult to envision a conference title in the next two or three years — our timeframe for his tenure in Boulder.

If he wins at the Power Five level, an SEC school will come calling at the first opportunity.

But for Colorado, that would be an acceptable course of events; nobody expects him to stay for the long haul.

The Buffs need Sanders to inject energy and momentum that his successor can build on.

When are you going to take a vacation and get away from this Pac-12 media mess? — @2023SportsGuy

Thank you for asking.

The Hotline broke the news of USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten on June 30, two days before my long-scheduled vacation to the Delaware Shore.

As a result, my expectation is for the next piece of massive news to break just before a planned vacation in the middle of April.

Or, perhaps, as I’m standing in the jetway preparing to board.

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